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One Size Does Not Fit All: The Limits of Iron Dome

Despite the recent success of the Iron Dome defense system against Hamas, Iranian missiles would prove a much tougher challenge.

By David Patrikarakos for

If Israel eventually makes good on its years of threats and strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities the Iranians have promised to “respond with everything they have.” One means of retaliation available to Iran is launching missile attacks against Israel both directly and through proxy groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

How Israel is likely to cope with this depends in large part on its new missile defense system, which includes “Iron Dome,” the latest jewel in Israel’s opulent military crown. Iron Dome is seen as a panacea for a country perpetually targeted by missiles: it is a $210 million, mobile all-weather air defense system developed by Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (with additional funding from the U.S.), working jointly with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Designed to intercept and destroy short-range rockets and artillery shells fired from distances of up to 70 km away, it is, so Israel’s leaders say, the future of the country’s defense.

Iron Dome has its roots in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. During the hostilities, the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah fired around 4,000 mostly short-range Katyusha rockets at northern Israel, including at its third largest city, Haifa. Scores of Israelis were killed and thousands were forced to cower in bomb shelters. Meanwhile, in the south of the country things had been bad for years. Between 2000 and the Second Lebanon War, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, fired thousands Gazan-made Qassam and Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets into the south of Israel, where almost 1 million Israelis live within rocket range.

The seemingly endless missile attacks from Gaza and Lebanon were enough to prompt the Israeli government into action. Shortly after the Lebanon War, in February 2007, Israeli Defense Minister, Amir Peretz, announced that Rafael Advanced Defense Systems would develop a new missile defense shield – Iron Dome – that was to be Israel’s defensive solution to the country’s short-range rocket threat.

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The system has a simple goal: to intercept rockets, aircraft and artillery and destroy them in mid-air before they reach populated areas. It works in three stages. The first is to detect the incoming missile(s), which it does through the use of radar installation that forms part of the system. Once detected, stage two, the battle management and weapons control (BMC), the brains of the system, kicks in. The BMC calculates the trajectory of the incoming missile: if it is headed toward an unpopulated area, like a field, the system will not deploy. This is necessary to keep the cost down as thousands of missiles are launched at Israel from Lebanon and Gaza, most of which fall harmlessly on unpopulated areas.

But if a rocket is on a path to a city or built-up area, stage three kicks in and Iron Dome launches a Tamir missile to intercept and destroy it. Critically, the system calculates the best place to intercept the incoming target, to try and avoid debris falling on populated areas. The Tamir is initially guided by the BMC system before the Tamir’s onboard radar kicks in to take it as close to the incoming missile(s) as possible. Once there it detonates the warhead it is carrying, destroying both itself and the target missile. Each Tamir costs around $60,000, so accuracy is of paramount importance.

The system is mobile (it can be carried on a truck) and can be used in all weather, day or night. Each Iron Dome battery costs about $50m to install, and the government believes it is cheap at the cost. As soon as it was first declared operational, on March 27, 2011, it was deployed near the city of Beersheba, in the Negev Desert in the south of the country. Just a few weeks later, the system successfully intercepted a rocket launched from Gaza for the first time. By April 2012 it had intercepted 93 rockets.

But it is with Israel’s recent Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza that Iron Dome really proved its worth. In the first days of the conflict, the IDF said Iron Dome had intercepted 90 of an estimated 250 rockets fired by militant groups in the Palestinian territory over the previous day, an impressive ratio of 85 percent (when bearing in mind the system detects when missiles are heading toward unpopulated land and leaves those missiles alone). More recently Israeli leaders put the system’s success rate at 90 percent throughout the conflict.

By Tuesday evening the IDF tweeted that the shield had intercepted 389 rockets from Gaza. And it was at work across the country right up until the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Wednesday. Four Iron Dome batteries were initially in operation (eight more are planned for the future) with a fifth battery – a late addition – being deployed in Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city and financial hub. Critically, Tel Aviv was previously thought to be out of range of rockets from Gaza, but Hamas and other militant groups upgraded their missiles capabilities, and the city was repeatedly targeted during the conflict. Indeed, the Tel Aviv battery was almost immediately called into action shortly after it was installed, knocking out a rocket as it shot through the sky toward the city.

But its range (it’s able to intercept missiles fired from around 70km away) was put to the limit by the Tel Aviv attack, which is worrying for Israel because it means that it cannot intercept the longer range missiles that would be fired from Iran. What is even more worrying is that the Iranians know that it cannot. According to Iranian Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, Iron Dome is no match for Iranian missiles, and that “what is said about this [Iron Dome] is mostly psychological warfare and propaganda.” “There is,” he continued, “no iron dome in the world that we cannot pierce through.”

But if Iran knows Iron Dome’s limitations, so does Israel: the IDF’s ultimate goal is a multi-layered defense system that includes “David’s Sling,” also known as the Magic Wand, which is designed to intercept medium-range rockets and missiles – including the Iranian-made missiles that Hezbollah possesses – and is due to be operational in 2015.

For Iran’s own Shahab-3 missiles, Israel is preparing its even more advanced “Arrow” system. In a recent nighttime test at a military base south of Tel Aviv, the Arrow intercepted a target missile fired from a high altitude by an F-15 fighter jet designed to simulate an Iranian Shahab-3.

But in the meantime, despite Iron Dome’s success in Gaza, Israel remains vulnerable to Iranian missile attacks. This uncomfortable and inescapable fact may be one more reason that Israel’s military leaders have yet to launch the strike against Iran that they have talked about for so long.

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David Patrikarakos is a U.K.-based writer and author of the book “Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State.” His work has appeared in the New Statesman and Financial Times, among other publications.